“Stand up for what you believe in even if you are standing alone.”1 – Sophie Scholl
One of the toughest things we are called to do in life is to stand up for what we believe. In the wake of the recent scandals that have rocked the Church, it can take courage to even admit that you’re Catholic. Not only does the secular world not understand what we stand for, but when we do speak the truth of our faith, it’s not uncommon to find our words being twisted and distorted. At times, we may not even recognize ourselves in the images reflected back to us! We are accused of attitudes we don’t hold, sins we have never committed, and sadly, many good and holy priests have been tarred with the same brush as those who have abused and harmed those entrusted to their care.
Today, Catholics are being challenged to ask themselves what they believe in and what it really means to be Catholic. But though these are trying days in the life of the Church, it isn’t the first time we have faced serious upheaval. Just think back to the tumultuous days that followed Vatican II in the late 1960s. Because I converted to Catholicism in 1988, I had no idea just how crazy that time really was until I came across a story about the fallout in a talk to seminarians given by Cardinal Timothy Dolan at the Pontifical North American College in Rome.2 It has given me a lot of clarity and encouragement at a time when I sorely need it.
Dolan tells the story of Bishop George J. Gottwald, who served as apostolic administrator of the archdiocese of St. Louis from 1967-68 – not long after the close of the Second Vatican Council (on December 8, 1965). During those turbulent days, one quarter of the priest faculty at the seminary in St. Louis left the priesthood, many of the students dropped out, and the theology that was being taught was questionable. Cardinal Dolan writes,
“The priests who remained on the faculty announced they wanted to join an ecumenical theologate [seminary], since, according to their interpretation of the council, it was useless to teach Catholic theology – since it probably no longer existed.
They demanded the presence of the apostolic administrator at what was really a ‘campus demonstration’ in the early spring of 1968, there to present him with their list of demands, in front of the obligatory TV cameras.
Into this lion’s den walked Bishop George Gottwald, shy, nervous, wishing he was still an unknown pastor in the Ozark hills of southern Missouri. The leader of the faculty and students informed the bishop that Kenrick Seminary might as well close, since the whole enterprise of priestly formation and Catholic theology was up for grabs. The bishop offered the comment that, even with the legitimate questioning and probing of the council, there were still clear, consistent truths that had to be taught any future priest.
‘Hah!’ snickered the faculty spokesman, ‘I dare you to tell me what we can possibly teach our students now that has not changed, that will not change, that can be stated with any amount of conviction at all! I dare you to tell me!’
The bishop’s mouth went dry, he recalls, as all eyes were on him, as the microphones clicked on and cameras whirled for a sound bite, as they waited for him to take the dare! And what did he answer?
‘I believe in God, the Father Almighty, Creator of heaven and earth; and in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord: who was conceived by the Holy Ghost, born of the Virgin Mary; suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried. He descended into hell; the third day he arose again from the dead; he ascended into heaven, sitteth at the right hand of God the Father Almighty; from thence he shall come to judge the living and the dead. I believe in the Holy Ghost, the Holy Catholic Church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins the resurrection of the body, and life everlasting. Amen.’3
These words of the Apostles’ Creed remind us that our faith does not rest in humans or institutions, but in God: the One who is over all, the One who never changes, the One who is all powerful. Faith in the Lord is what matters; it is the heart of everything we stand for. Faith is what gives us peace and the strength we need for our journey. Blessed Charles de Foucauld once wrote, “The moment I realized that God existed, I could not do otherwise than to live for him alone. … Faith strips the mask from the world and reveals God in everything. It makes nothing impossible and renders meaningless such words as anxiety, fear, and danger, so that the believer goes through life calmly and peacefully, with profound joy – like a child hand in hand with his mother.”4 How, then, can we protect and strengthen our faith?
Cardinal Dolan makes several suggestions:
1. First, we need to study. “We dread a stale, insipid, childish, defensive faith; we crave a strong, lively, confident, childlike faith. Thus, we are not afraid to probe, wonder, question, think critically. As Pope Leo XIII said, ‘The Church is not afraid of truth.’”5 Read the Bible, make time for good, solid spiritual reading, or join a faith study at your parish.
2. Second, we must pray. Cardinal Dolan writes, “I recall giving instructions once to a professor of mathematics at Washington University in St. Louis. He was marrying a Catholic girl and sincerely wanted to join the Church. Never have I seen anyone try harder for faith! He never missed an instruction, devoured every catechism I gave him, asked tough questions, even read the Summa! Still, no faith. ‘Father, what can I do?’ he asked in mental agony. It then dawned on me that we were both approaching faith as if it were a discipline, a course, knowledge to be digested. But it isn’t, of course – it is a gift from God. So, I said, ‘Have you prayed for faith, asking God to give it to you?’ ‘Well, no,’ he responded. He did, and I did. He was baptized; his first son tells me he wants to be a priest. Pray for faith!”6
3. Be careful about signs. At times, we long for a sign from God. We want to be reassured that we are on the right track, that He is here with us, that He is real. Our Lord understands this longing of our hearts. In response to St. Thomas’ crisis of faith after the Resurrection, Jesus appears to him and invites Thomas to touch His hands and to put his finger in His side. And then our Lord calls him to go deeper: “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe (Jn 20:29).” St. Paul writes, “Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen (Heb 11:1).” Cardinal Dolan cautions that although “[signs] can enhance our faith, they can never take its place. … Our faith does not depend on them, but on Him. They’re only the sauce, not the pasta.”7
4. Although our instincts might tell us to run the other way when suffering threatens to upset our equilibrium, “crisis [and] suffering … can purify and strengthen our faith. … Faith is fine when we’re healthy, but elusive when sick.,” writes Cardinal Dolan. “Faith is not needed when we’re fulfilled, content, satisfied – but do we ever need it when frustrated, worried, anxious preoccupied! Comfort, ease, security can sometimes strangle it. As we hear in the Epistle of St. James: ‘Count it all joy, my brethren, when you meet various trials, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness’ (James 1:2-3).”7
5. Surround yourself with others who will support and encourage you in your faith journey. No one can go it alone. Get involved in your parish, sign up for a faith study, join a prayer group, or find a good advisor or spiritual director. It is a tremendous consolation to be able to speak about our spiritual journey with others who share our beliefs, and it can really help bolster our faith.
These are difficult days within the Church, but with the help of God’s grace, we put our trust in Him who has promised that He will bring good from it (Rom 8:28). And so, we pray, “Lord, I believe; help my unbelief!” (Mark 9:24)
Sharon van der Sloot
1 From https://www.inspiringquotes.us/author/2698-sophie-scholl. Sophie Scholl was a German student and member of a non-violent resistance group to Hitler and the Nazi party during World War II called the White Rose. She was caught delivering anti-war propaganda and was executed for high treason.
2 The Cardinal – then Fr. Dolan – served as rector at the Pontifical North American College in Rome from 1994-2001. The series of talks he gave to seminarians (published in the book, Priests for the Third Millennium) focuses on how to live the Christian life: how to grow in virtues such as faith, hope, love, humility, and fidelity, as well as how to live the priestly life.
3 Cardinal Timothy M. Dolan, Priests for the Third Millennium (Huntington, IN: Our Sunday Visitor, Inc., 2000), 17-18.
4 Ibid., 19.
5 Ibid., 23.
6 Ibid., 24.
8 Ibid., 24-25.
* The Ladder of Divine Ascent, an ascetical treatise by St. John Climacus, teaches us how to avoid vice and practice virtue so that, in the end, we can hope to attain salvation. In this icon, which hangs in St. Catherine’s Monastery in the Sinai Peninsula, Egypt, we see many people climbing a ladder. Jesus is at the top, waiting to welcome the climbers into heaven. Angels help the climbers, but at the same time, demons shoot the climbers with arrows and try to drag them down, no matter how high up they are on the ladder.